Under the Eye of God: The Puritan Doctrine of Vocation for Today (Part 1)

by
September 22, 2014

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” We have all heard the question and likely asked the question, too. We typically ask the question of a child and again of the high school graduate or college freshman. The question you do not hear in our culture, though, is this – “What is your vocation?” It’s true that the modern use of the word “vocation” often means career or job.[1] In fact, a leading scholarly book on the Puritans uses “vocation” primarily in a chapter about work.[2] This is typically what we mean when we think or speak of vocation in the Western world.

The word vocation may not be used much in modern vocabulary, but the concept of vocation is undoubtedly at the forefront of many people’s minds. The Christian book publishing industry is replete with books answering the oft-asked question, “What is God’s will for my life?”[3] Andy Crouch suggests the modern man’s vocation is “world changer,” or at least that is what modern man likes to read about in books.[4] It seems modern man thinks much of vocation without having the right vocabulary or understanding of the concept. The Puritans – English “persons of principle, devoted, determined and disciplined”[5] reformers of the 16th and 17th century – offer godly guidance in thinking about vocation, choosing vocation and living out a vocation in the spheres of the family, the marketplace, government and the church.

The Puritans used the words calling and vocation interchangeably. According to Edmund Morgan, and unlike our modern usage, the Puritans used the word calling, or vocation, in three senses, where the subject in all three senses was God, the object always man. First, God called a man to ever right action, regardless the situation. “If the Puritan felt justified in a given act, he perceived a calling or a call to do it.”[6] Second, the God called men to salvation.[7] “The substance of this call, or the thing the Lord calls unto, is to come unto him.”[8] Thomas Hooker entitled one of his books The Soul’s Vocation, or Effectual Calling.[9] Third, God called men to a personal or particular calling – a vocation – with a set of roles and tasks.[10] This third Puritan sense of the word is the subject of examination in this post, particularly its application in the family, marketplace, government and church.

Definition of Vocation

  1. Catholic and Medieval Definition

The development of the word vocation, or in the Latin, vocatio, reveals a maturation of the word throughout Christian history. Greeks and Roman elites held intellectual work in highest esteem.[11] The monastic era in the Roman Catholic Church was marked by the use of vocation to refer to the monastic lifestyle.[12] During the Middle Ages, in the midst of the sheer drudgery of physical labor without aid of technology, the Roman Catholic Church proclaimed, “Their work is their prayer.”[13] On the eve of the Reformation, the notion of vocation or calling was restricted to members of religious orders, like priests and nuns, or those called to special ministries.[14] The usual term “estate” was used to denote one’s occupation or station in life, whereas “calling” or vocation “had been reserved for the life of prayer and fasting to which the Lord called monks and nuns.”[15] This is most notable in the common Roman Catholic prayer, “May God send us many Order-vocations,” as opposed to scholar-vocations, banker-vocations, or parent-vocations.[16]

  1. Protestant Reformation

This understanding of vocation changed with the young monk-turned-reformer, Martin Luther.[17] “He urged the Christians to leave behind the exercises of monastic life, pilgrimages, Eucharistic parades, and various acts of pious self-denial in a struggle for [righteousness],” which was already accomplished by the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and imputed to the believer by faith in the Son of God.[18] Instead, Luther understood vocation to be “first and foremost a summons to a life of faith – a call to trust in God and who and what we are by His grace – forgiven and adopted children on His love.”[19] This calling to God as a redeemed sinner, an adopted child, meant for Luther that God’s vocation for each individual is decidedly ordinary and touches us within our space, where we already live[20], as opposed to a call to a life of separation and monasticism. Luther understood Paul to mean in 1 Corinthians 7:17 that God “calls us to express our faith in Him and His righteousness by loving service within the social communities to which we already belong through the responsibilities that arise from our stations and offices within them.”[21] In applying his vision of vocation, the Protestant Reformer approvingly said, “The farmers feed us and the soldiers defend us.” Likewise, John Calvin taught that everyone received a special calling to a vocation for which he received the necessary gifts.[22] Each person should exercise those gifts in service to God and others.[23]

  1. Puritan Definition

The Puritan movement is an heir to the Protestant Reformation and, consequently, to the vocational vision of the Reformers, like Luther and Calvin. As such, the Puritan doctrine of vocation was a specific application of God’s providence to the personal life of every Christian.[24] Puritans customarily divided God’s call of the individual into a general calling and a particular calling. The general calling was the calling to be a redeemed and holy Christian in every area of life. The particular calling was God’s direction of a person into a specific station of life, particularly in the family, marketplace, government and church.[25] The Puritans understood vocation as a certain kind of life, ordained and imposed on man by God, for the common good. Every person of every degree, state, sex, or condition without exception must have some personal and particular calling to walk in.[26]

Like Luther and Calvin, the Puritans rejected the monastic, Roman Catholic understanding of vocation. As the Puritan Thomas Shepard wrote:

“Seeing yourself thus working in worldly employments fir him, you may easily apprehend that for that time God calls you to them and you attend upon the work of Jesus Christ in them, that you honor God as much, nay, more, by the meanest servile worldly act, than if you should have spent all that time in meditation, prayer, or any other spiritual employment, to which you had no call at that time.”[27]

The Puritan’s viewed all of life under the authority and counsel of God, which filled all human endeavors – not only religious activities – with spiritual significance.[28] William Perkins instructed that “the duties of love” should motivate every person to pursue specific vocations in their spheres of life so as to “become a servant to his brother.”[29] “The Puritan concept of the Christian’s vocation neither reduces Christian devotion to the common life of natural men, nor limits Christian devotion to the special activities of ministers and evangelists.”[30] Rather, the Puritan view of vocation weaves “spiritual motivations, a sense of the presence of the living God and a heavenly hope” into the common, ordinary life of the Christian man.[31]

Discerning the Call

Given the importance of vocation in Puritan thought, the choice of calling[32] was a solemn affair. The choice of calling was predominantly focused on choosing a career or job, but was not exclusively confined to this area alone. Since all of life is a vocation to God[33], so each choice which changed one’s station in life was a solemn moment of contemplation. The Puritans assumed that one’s calling in life was not to change without much prayer and contemplation on God’s providence, as taught by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:20.[34]

The Puritans preferred to trust such things in determining or changing a vocation as a person’s inward endowments and inclinations. Further, outward circumstances which may lead to one course of life rather than another should be considered I light of God’s providence. Also, the advice of parents, guardians, and in some cases magistrates and nature, education or gifts acquired point to a person’s vocation.[35] While, again, primarily concerned with one’s occupation or work, this three-fold plan of discernment also applied to one’s vocation in the family, government and church.

Richard Steele – a nonconformist Puritan divine – offers practical, sound guidance on choosing a vocation of employment that also offers guidance on making the best choice in all of life’s vocational decisions. First, Steele advises the reader to give the decision the attention it deserves.[36] “It’s wrong to focus on such an important matter without giving it serious thought and reason.”[37] Second, consult with faithful, discerning people, especially those with the same calling.[38] Next, choose a calling that is not harmful to your soul.[39] Certain vocational pursuits may be, in and of themselves, lawful and profitable, but are sufficiently tempting as to harm the soul.[40] Fourth, let God’s providence be acknowledged by sincerely seeking His direction and assistance.[41] Lastly, consistent with the other considerations, one’s personal preference should also be taken into account.[42] These considerations offer a wise framework by which to discern your vocation in all areas of life as we seek to live under the eye of God.

Having considered the history, definition and discernment of vocation, we will consider what the Puritan doctrine of vocation teaches us today specifically in the areas of family, the marketplace, government and the church in our next post.

[1] Clark, David K. and Robert V. Rakestraw. Readings in Christian Ethics: Issues and Applications. Vol 2. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 33.

[2] Ryken, Leland. Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids: Academic Books, 1990).

[3] A quick Google search returned 1,160,000 results for the phrase “God’s will for my life.” An additional search of www.lifeway.com for “God’s will” returned 329 results.

[4] Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 187-189.

[5] Packer, J.I. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 22.

[6] Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relationships in Seventeenth Century New England (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1966), 69.

[7] Morgan, The Puritan Family, 70.

[8] Morgan, The Puritan Family, 70.

[9] Morgan, The Puritan Family, 70.

[10] Clark, 33.

[11] Claar, Victor V. and Robin J. Klay. Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy and Life Choices (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 166.

[12] Holl, Karl. “The History of the Word Vocation (Beruf),” trans. Heber F. Peacock. Review & Expositor, 55 (1958), 136.

[13] Claar, 166.

[14] Claar, 166.

[15] Morgan, The Puritan Family, 70.

[16] Holl, 126.

[17] Hein, Steven A. “Luther on Vocatio: Ordinary Life for Ordinary Saints.” Reformation & Revival: A Quarterly Journal for Church Leadership 8, (1999), 121.

[18] Hein, 121.

[19] Hein, 126.

[20] Hein, 132.

[21] Hein, 132.

[22] Claar, 166.

[23] A discussion of Luther’s “two kingdoms” teaching is beyond the scope of this paper. Therefore, I chose to not mention the matter. However, so to show my familiarity with the concept, a quality analysis of the doctrine related to vocation occurs in John S. Feinberg’s “Luther’s Doctrine of Vocation: Some Problems of Interpretation and Application.” Fides et Historia 12, (1979).

[24] Ryken, 15.

[25] Ryken, 15-16.

[26] Morgan, Edmund S. ed. Puritan Political Ideas 1558-1794 (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2003), 34.

[27] Shepard, Thomas. The Works of Thomas Shepard (Forgotten Books, 2012), 308.

[28] Beeke, Joel R. and Mark Jones. A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 534.

[29] Perkins, William. A Treatise of the Vocations (Cambridge, 1605).

[30] Beeke, 534.

[31] Beeke, 534.

[32] I use “vocation” and “calling” interchangeably at points in this paper, which was common in Puritan thought.

[33] Hein, 126-134.

[34] Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

[35] Ryken, 28.

[36] Steele, Richard. The Religious Tradesman (Haymarket: Vision Harvest, Inc., 2005), 26.

[37] Steele, 26.

[38] Steele, 26.

[39] Steele, 27.

[40] Steele, 27.

[41] Steele, 28.

[42] Steele, 28.


Sam Webb
Sam Webb is an attorney and trade advisor with Ryan, LLC, in Arlington, VA. Sam also serves as an Associate Research Fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. You can follow him on Twitter at @samwebb1876.